UK public sector four-day week trial hailed a success, Japan finally phases out floppy disks: news in brief

By on 11/07/2024 | Updated on 11/07/2024
Image: Fernando Lavin on Unsplash

Global Government Forum’s weekly news roundup of public service intelligence

In this edition:

UK public sector four-day week trial hailed a success

A trial of four-day working weeks at a UK local authority reduced staff turnover and quickened turnaround on planning applications, a review has found.

South Cambridgeshire District Council has been operating a four-day week, with the aim of improving staff retention, and an independent report by analysts at the universities of Cambridge and Salford found that performance had improved or stayed the same on 22 of 24 key performance indicators.

Under a four-day week, officers are expected to carry out 100% of their work, in around 80% of their contracted hours, for 100 per cent of their pay.

The council has maintained its opening hours through staff planning, and researchers found that 11 areas of its performance had improved during its four-day week trial from the beginning of 2023 to the end of March 2024.

Areas of improvement included the percentage of calls to the council that are answered, the number of days to process housing benefit and council tax support changes, and the percentage of emergency repairs to council homes completed within 24 hours.

The average number of weeks taken to determine householder planning applications also improved, while more major planning application decisions were made on time.

Staff turnover has also fallen by nearly 40%, and the percentage of invoices paid by the council within 30 days has improved.

A further 11 key performance indicators showed no significant differences during the trial, while performance in two areas declined. These were housing rent collected and average days to re-let housing stock. The council says this rent collection fall was likely due to the cost-of-living crisis in the UK, rather than the four-day trial. The council’s turnaround to re-renting council homes fell from 28 days in 2022/23 to 30 days in 2023/24. The council noted that the top 25% of councils in the country average 37 days to relet council houses and that returned council homes now often require extensive works which take longer to complete.

Daiga Kamerāde, professor in work and wellbeing at the University of Salford, said: “The trial suggests that a four-day work week maintains the quality of public services as measured by key performance indicators, while attracting new staff and improving workers’ wellbeing. The pioneering trial can inspire evidence-based innovations in local councils and other organisations.”

This was the most prominent four-day week trial in the UK, and the former Conservative government had called on the council to stop the trial, even proposing to change the law to do so.

Unions representing civil servants in governments around the world have also campaigned for a four-day week. Civil servants in the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) have launched a campaign to work a four-day week, while the federal government in Belgium was understood to be looking into whether civil servants ought to be able to work a four-day week to match greater flexibility introduced in the private sector under a new labour deal. Under the deal, private sector employees are allowed to work a shorter week provided they make up the hours over four days.

In June last year, the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC) rejected a bid by federal government workers and unions for a four-day work week. The idea was that public servants could be allowed to work just under 9.5 hours per day over four days rather than the current 7.5 hours a day over five, and receive their full pay. However, the commission said its chief negotiator Peter Riordan had considered the request but that it was “unable to support this initiative”.

Read the latest Management and Workforce Monitor: Trump supporters develop ‘blacklist’ of federal workers, UK civil service prepares for election results, and more

Japanese government finally does away with floppy disks

The Japanese government has at last phased out floppy disks. Until last month, citizens still had to submit documents to the government via the outdated hardware, with over 1,000 regulations requiring their use.

In 2022, digital minister Taro Kono declared “war” on floppy disks. He said at the time that procedures would be updated to allow for applications to be made online. “Where does one even buy a floppy disk these days?” he joked.

The Digital Agency has now reportedly scrapped all regulations relating to the use of floppy disks – except for one related to vehicle recycling, according to Reuters.

“We have won the war on floppy disks!”, said Kono.

Despite the country’s reputation for advanced technology, the Japanese government has lagged behind in digital transformation due to issues such as underinvestment and societal resistance.

Some workplaces still use fax machines over email and require personal carved stamps known as ‘hanko’ rather than a signature.  Kono has said another of his goals is to “get rid of the fax machine”.

Japan currently ranks 32nd out of 64 economies in the International Institute for Management Development’s world digital competitiveness ranking, behind regional peers Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China.

Japan’s Digital Agency was established in 2021 after COVID-19 exposed inefficiencies such as the complicated and slow process of applying for benefits during the pandemic.

In 2022, a misformatted floppy disk sent to a bank by a local prefecture official led to one resident erroneously receiving 46.3 million yen (US$286,000).

Read the latest Digital and Data Monitor: UK election manifesto tech takeaways, a personal reflection on transforming digital services, and more

The US intelligence community is embracing generative AI

US intelligence analysts have begun using generative AI in classified settings including discovery and writing assistance, ideation, brainstorming and counter argument generation.

Speaking at the recent Amazon Web Services Summit in Washington DC, Lakshmi Raman, the CIA’s director of artificial intelligence innovation application, said that the US intelligence community has started experimenting with the technology in response to heightened global awareness of its potential to solve problems.

“We were captured by the generative AI zeitgeist just like the entire world was a couple of years back,” he said.

Raman, who acts as the functional manager for the intelligence community’s open-source data collection, added that the CIA wanted to understand how AI could help the government keep pace with disinformation.

He suggested that the technology could be used to stay on top of “all of the news stories that come in every minute of every day from around the world”. By using AI to process large quantities of data in order to draw out insights, intelligence analysts in government could make greater headway in informing policymakers.

“In our open-source space, we’ve also had a lot of success with generative AI, and we have leveraged generative AI to help us classify and triage open-source events to help us search and discover and do levels of natural language query on that data,” Raman said.

Read the latest AI Monitor newsletter: Professor Sue Black on AI and education, innovation challenge winner tackles major AI barriers, and more

Irish government identifies barriers and drivers for climate action

Irish people have high awareness of climate change but a gap exists between intention and action, according to a report from the country’s Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications.

The report, which the government said provides a “comprehensive understanding of the challenges and opportunities in transitioning to a low-carbon society”, finds that climate-friendly actions are on the rise, with a majority of those responding saying that they are starting to use public transport more often or are trying to manage their energy use at home. Most people also intend to do more, like moving to an electric vehicle or investing in solar panels for example.

However, it also reveals that people are worried about issues such as the cost and range of EVs, the payback on solar, and don’t know where to start on their retrofitting journey.

Further, people are not clear as to what actions have the biggest impacts, such as that “driving an EV is one of the best ways to reduce impact on the environment,” the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications said in its announcement of the research.

The report also highlights habits that are harder to change. Young people were found to struggle with the idea of flying less, while older people identified with traditional forms of heating such as open fires.

Behaviour change is influenced by many factors such as perceived benefits, financial incentives, cultural identity and generational attitudes, according to the findings.

Eamon Ryan, The Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, said: “This report highlights the crucial role people and communities are already playing in driving climate action. There are green shoots throughout the country.”

He added: “If there’s one really salient issue from this report, it’s that every aspect of climate action must be viewed through a just transition lens. If we don’t have a fair transition, it won’t be fast, and if we don’t have a fast transition, it won’t be fair for anyone.”

Read the latest Sustainability Monitor: Coalition launches the ‘backlash to the green backlash’, the new UK government’s climate to-do list, and more

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